The Balla murder case

I usually don't cover murders, but I think that the murder of Irma Balla, a local Fidesz politician in Debrecen, deserves special attention because it shows the total incompetence of the Hungarian police, the prosecutors, and the judge who sentenced Balla's son, Sándor Schönstein, to 12 years in a penitentiary. Schönstein, who is now thirty-three years old, has already spent two years in jail awaiting trial and his subsequent appeal. Last week the appellate judges, a panel of three, found the previous investigation, indictment, and sentencing so outrageously bad that they threw out the entire case. Schönstein can now wait for a new trial (or not) at home.

Without going into all the details, the murder took place in the spring of 2007. Ms. Balla was home alone. Her son, who was attending university in Budapest at the time, was visiting his mother for Easter. On the night of the murder, however, he wasn't at home. He was miles away at a picnic. An iron-clad alibi, but such things sometimes don't make a dent with either the Hungarian detectives or the prosecutors. Irma Balla was hit on the head with a heavy instrument. The police suspected her laptop. With the exception of her cell phone nothing was missing from the house. Her son returned shortly after midnight and found his mother in a pool of blood. He called the police.

Then the inimitable Debrecen police force began to investigate. They investigated and investigated for a whole year but couldn't find the murderer. They did find the cell phone about two miles from the house in a park, but it seems that the phone didn't offer up any clues. After a year the police most likely got restless and somewhat concerned that they weren't coming up with anything. So they decided that Balla's son Sándor, who in some mysterious way was able to be in two different places at the same time, was the guilty one. They immediately incarcerated him.

At this point György Magyar, a well known criminal lawyer, entered the picture. He was often interviewed during the lengthy criminal proceedings. I listened to these interviews with growing fascination. He was clearly frustrated and at one point became a kind of Perry Mason, the TV lawyer who together with a private investigator had to solve cases in order to get his client acquitted. Magyar began his own investigation and found a plausible suspect, Lajos D. Lajos D. had been questioned as a witness because he happened to be working next door at the time of the murder. He had a record already. In fact he was in jail when he was questioned. During his testimony he gave a fairly accurate description of the interior of Balla's house. When asked how he could possibly know all this, he claimed that while working on the house next door he could see all the details from the reflection of an open window. György Magyar and his private detective ascertained that Lajos D. was not telling the truth. No matter the time of the day, one couldn't see much from the window's reflection. When a bit more pressure was put on Lajos D. he confessed to the murder, only to withdraw his confession a day or two later.

In vain did György Magyar ask for further investigation of Lajos D. The police refused to move a finger, and eventually Sándor Schönstein was indicted for the murder of his mother. Never mind that he had an alibi, never mind that they found nothing that would tie him to the murder, the prosecutors went ahead with the case. Finally in 2009 the Hajdú-Bihar County Court sentenced him to twelve years. The prosecution asked for a tougher sentence, György Magyar asked for acquittal. So, the case was moved up to the appellate court in Debrecen.

A few days ago the appellate court in Debrecen took up the case again and had some harsh words to say about the investigation, the prosecution, and the judges of the lower court. The appellate panel pointed out that the case has many unanswered questions and contradictions. As an example, they noted that under the fingernails of the victim there were no traces of Sándor Schönstein's DNA but there were traces of two other persons' DNA. The judges in their opinion didn't mention this physical evidence. Even more important was the fact that a crowbar that belonged to Lajos D. and was suspected by György Magyar of being the murder weapon wasn't checked out in spite of repeated requests. According to the medical examiner a crowbar-like instrument was most likely involved in Irma Balla's murder.

All in all, it looks as if after four years of agony Sándor Schönstein might be cleared because the judges declared the earlier sentencing null and void. But the young man spent two years in jail, his university career is broken, and he had to suffer from the suspicion that he killed his own mother. Who is going to pay for all this? Sándor Schönstein, once his name is cleared, can sue the Hungarian state for compensation. But we know what people wrongly accused get from the generous Hungarian state for their pain and suffering. Very little.

Put it this way, I wouldn't like to be accused of some serious crime in Hungary because the likelihood of being sentenced by an incompetent judge on the basis of incompetent police work and a shoddy job by the prosecution is quite high.

But this ineptitude is not confined to criminal proceedings. In civil cases a similar fate can await the accused. Soon enough I will return to the case of UD Zrt which was clearly guilty of illegally acquiring secret national security information but in the end the victims of UD Zrt's activities ended up being accused. The judge in the case, after reading the 30-page indictment, said that it was so poorly put together that he didn't know what to do with it. He threw it back to the prosecution and ordered them to come up with another one within fifteen days.

Perhaps Hungarians should watch more American TV–for instance, the "Law and Order" and "CSI" mega-franchises. But definitely not "Reno 911," which they might not recognize to be a dim-witted comedy.

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I have my own little ‘Hungarian police’ story, nothing as serious as a murder, but still odd in its own way. One summer my wife said she could smell cannabis smoke when she was sitting on the balcony and that it must be coming from the flat below. I didn’t take much notice of this at the time, but some days later when I was leaning out of one of our windows trying to unjam the shutters, I noticed a very familiar looking plant growing on the balcony of the flat below us. I took some photos of this plant, more out of my own curiosity than anything else – I couldn’t quite believe what I saw. Then one day I was ‘talking’ to another of our neighbours, who happens to be a policeman and I mentioned seeing this plant. Up to then I had assumed that the Hungarian law’s attitude towards cannabis must be fairly relaxed, especially as it can be grown so easily in that climate – and my neighbour was openly growing some just meters from his policeman neighbour. So, it was quite a shock to be asked early the next morning to bring my camera down… Read more »
I was wondering how will the FIDESZ government approach the “brutal” policemen of 2006. After all these guys are the same cops today. Well they didn’t. Then a few weeks ago they nullified the convictions of the 2006 “freedom fighters” practically saying that verdicts were based on testimonies of lying policemen. They suspected the cops are pissed so 2 weeks ago OV and Pinter sent a lame letter to the force trying to assure them they are still very important and their work is appreciated. They did this while they are cutting back on their benefits. I met a guy last year who was a “határőr”, a border guard. The “Határőrség” was an armed branch of the military that patrolled the borders and manned border checkpoints. Now in the EU era they were let go. The guys were offered to get schooled and become cops. His training lasted for “1 month”. Now Sandor Pinter, the minister of the interior, after he stuffed his pockets with the sale of his company, when he took office (the company that is getting all the juicy deals now) should focus on the state of the law enforcement in Hungary. I wonder how effective the… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh

Mutt Damon: “I was wondering how will the FIDESZ government approach the “brutal” policemen of 2006″
What I gather the policemen are furious. They are also very unhappy about the government’s plan to take away their early retirement privileges.

As long as we’re telling Hungarian police stories… In 2000, newly in Budapest, I answered the door to our apartment and two uniformed policemen and three other men entered the apartment, looked around, and then started to unplug and remove our television and stereo. Naturally, I was upset and one man, who spoke some English, explained that they were collecting for unpaid taxes. I explained that I had just moved to Hungary and so could not have unpaid taxes. The man asked to see my passport and discovered that I was not, in fact, the prior occupant of my flat, who had left some two years before for France, and had apparently left without paying some tax. The appliances were set back in place (but not replugged) and all five men left without either an apology or a goodbye. Two weeks after that, two more police officers rang my bell with a warrant for my landlord’s son, who with his father had been living abroad for several years, and had thus failed to appear when drafted in the Hungarian military. Even though I tried explained who I was, showing both my passport and domicile registration, they insisted on taking me… Read more »

Five times during the last 15 years I have been in a Hungarian police station, because they stole from me, or my wife or even my mother in law (by pushing her down the metro stairs and after that stealing her wallet). In three cases there were witnesses and security footage. All cases were closed because they could not find the person(s) who did it.
In my opinion a case should be closed if they found the person(s) who did it, and not because they could not find them.

John T

Ron – If you work on the basis that the opposite of what you think should happen, will actually be what happens, then you have finally managed to understand Hungary 🙂


John T: Ron – If you work on the basis that the opposite of what you think should happen, will actually be what happens, then you have finally managed to understand Hungary 🙂
Unfortunately, I do not have that luxury. The people I work with are mainly foreigners living abroad, and they believe Hungary is on a different planet, which considering the circumstances is probably right.

Re. how effective will riot control will be. This is how it will happen: Small/medium scale protests will be held against Fidesz. These will be entirely peaceful and tolerated by the government and police. Protests will grow in size and frequency as the situation in the country deteriorates. OV will start to feel paranoid (well, more so than normal) and will ‘order’ tougher police action against demonstrations. Violence will break out at a demonstration. The police will claim they came under attack, the protestors will claim that the police waded in without reason. Violence will become commonplace at demonstrations. The police will ‘retaliate’ more and more violently and disproportionately, protestors will come prepared for trouble and prepared to initiate it. Eventually a protest will erupt into full-scale disorder and OV’s under-trained police will not be able to cope, leading to their retreat and the protestors occupying buildings, etc. A state of emergency will then be declared and further demonstrations will be banned. However, this will not stop clashes between demonstrators and police. The police will respond by using live ammunition and the army will be called in. A state of effective civil war will become established. Protests will rapidly become… Read more »

It is close to off topic but considering that the police is so relaxed on many occasions, it dawns to me why the incidents in 2006 caused an outcry. But (in earnest) I am thinking whether such a police can be used for the pending one-man-rule feared by some. Or would you think that they are unfortunately not too successful in the work that they should do but could easily perform the tasks assigned from “above”?